Do we really need to study covenants in order to talk about baptism? Only if we want to understand the Presbyterian position on infant baptism. The Presbyterian position is directly tied to their view of the covenant and how it is administered. They see baptism as a sign and seal of the covenant that should be given to all those who are included in the covenant and its blessings.
So, what’s a covenant? Well, a covenant is a divine promise of relationship. The heart of a covenant is the repeated promise of Scripture, “You will be my people and I will be your God.” It is a promise of relationship in which God gives Himself to His people in order to save them and establish an eternal, spiritual relationship with them.
The covenant relationship we are all most familiar with is marriage. In marriage, a husband and wife promise to continue in faithful relationship with one another. The covenant involves love, sacrifice, self-giving, faithfulness, and obligation. The husband gives himself to his wife and in return she is obligated to give herself to him, and vice versa. So the covenant is a promise and a self-giving that comes with obligations for both sides.
The Covenant with Adam: The very first covenant between God and man was made at the very beginning of history. When God made Adam and Eve, He entered into covenant relationship with them. He loved them and blessed them with Himself. God’s initial covenant relationship with Adam and Eve can be found in Genesis 1:28: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
This was a promise of blessing that involved obligation for Adam and Eve. But where was the relationship? Genesis 3:8-9 says, “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you? (NIV)’” Here we see a picture of the intimate fellowship that Adam and Eve enjoyed with God before the Fall. In fact, all of the subsequent covenant relationship promises are designed to get humanity and God back to this level of intimate fellowship.
What does any of this have to do with infant baptism? Well, notice that God includes their children in the covenant when He says, “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it.” More clearly, when Adam and Eve break the covenant, God includes their children in the consequences of the Fall. God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel (Gen 3:15, NIV).” The consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin were passed to all their offspring in subsequent generations. All men and women are born sinful, all women suffer pain in childbirth, and all men continue to work hard for their food and die.
If we understand that Genesis 3:15 is also a reference to Jesus Christ as the Seed of the woman who crushes the head of the serpent, we can begin to see some basic elements of a covenant emerge:
1. A covenant involves a relationship with God (walking with God in the garden).
2. A covenant brings great blessing to those who keep the obligations of the covenant (“Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion . . .”).
3. A covenant has requirements/ obligations that, if broken, bring a curse (“You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”- Gen 2:16-17, NIV).
4. All covenants really point to Christ (the real Tree of Life and the Seed of the woman who crushes the head of the serpent).
5. A covenant involves believers (those in covenant with God) and their children. Both the blessing and the consequences of the covenant are passed to the children of the covenant.
Let’s take a brief look at the other major covenants of Scripture and see if we can find these same elements in them, too.
The Covenant with Noah: (Genesis 6-9)
1. A relationship with God: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord . . . Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.” –Gen. 6:8-9, NIV
2. Great blessing to those who keep the covenant: “Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation.” –Genesis 7:1, NIV and “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” –Genesis 9:1, NIV
3. Covenant requirements/ obligations to avoid a curse: “I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. This is how you are to build it . . .”- Genesis 6:13-15, NIV
4. Points to Christ: Christ is the real ark of safety from the judgment of God.
5. Involves Noah’s children: “I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark-you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you.” –Genesis 6:18, NIV and “Go into the ark, you and your whole family . . .”-Genesis 7:1, NIV and “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you.”-Genesis 9:9, NIV
The Covenant with Abraham: (Genesis 12, 15, 17)
1. A relationship with God: “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. ‘I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you.’” –Gen 12:1-2, NIV
2. Great blessing to those who keep the covenant: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” –Genesis 12:2-3, NIV
“‘I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.’
Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations.’” –Genesis 17:2-3, NIV
3. Covenant requirements/ obligations to avoid a curse: “This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised . . . Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”- Genesis 17:10, 13-14, NIV
4. Points to Christ: Christ was circumcised (cut off) for us on the cross. The blood of circumcision points to the blood of Calvary.
5. Involves Abraham’s children: “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.”-Genesis 17:7, NIV
The Covenant with Moses and the Israelites (Commonly Called “The Old Covenant”): (Exodus – Deuteronomy)
1. A relationship with God: “God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’ And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’ ‘Do not come any closer,’ God said. ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.’ Then he said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.’ –Exodus 3:4-7, NIV
2. Great blessing to those who keep the covenant: “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.” –Exodus 19:5, NIV
“I will look on you with favor and make you fruitful and increase your numbers, and I will keep my covenant with you.” –Leviticus 26:9
“Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.” –Deuteronomy 7:9, NIV
3. Covenant requirements/ obligations to avoid a curse: “I will bring the sword upon you to avenge the breaking of the covenant.”- Leviticus 26:25, NIV
“The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant.” –Exodus 31:16, NIV
The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20)
4. Points to Christ: “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.” –Galatians 3:24, NAS
“These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” –Colossians 2:17, NIV
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” –Matthew 5:17, NIV
5. Involves the children/ descendents: “He passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” –Exodus 34:7, NIV
“Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.” –Deuteronomy 4:9, NIV
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” –Deuteronomy 29:29, NIV
The Covenant with David: (2 Samuel 7)
1. A relationship with God: “’This is what the Lord Almighty says: I took you from the pasture and from following the flock to be ruler over my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone” –2 Samuel 7:8-9, NIV
2. Great blessing to those who keep the covenant: “I have cut off all your enemies from before you. Now I will make your name great, like the names of the greatest men of the earth. And I will provide a place for my people Israel and will plant them so that they can have a home of their own and no longer be disturbed.” –2 Samuel 7:9-10, NIV
3. Covenant requirements/ obligations to avoid a curse: “I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with the rod of men, with floggings inflicted by men.”- 2 Samuel 7:14, NIV
4. Points to Christ: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.” –2 Samuel 7:16, NIV
Jesus fulfills this promise by being the Son of David whose throne endures forever.
“As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” –Matthew 9:27, NIV
5. Involves David’s children: “When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom.”-2 Samuel 7:12, NIV
Through these covenants, we can see a pattern in God’s dealings with His people. In fact, if you take all of these covenants together, you can see that they are all part of a larger covenant between God and His people. This is the overarching relationship that God enters into with His people in order to save them, bless them and draw them into obedience and eternal fellowship with Him. The heart of this covenant promise is repeated throughout Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, in God’s most precious promise:
ü “I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.” –Genesis 17:8, NIV
ü “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.” –Exodus 6:7, NIV
ü “Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in all the ways I command you, that it may go well with you.” –Jeremiah 7:23, NIV
ü “So you will be my people, and I will be your God.” –Jeremiah 30:22
ü “You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” –Ezekiel 36:28, NIV
ü “As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” –2 Corinthians 6:6, NIV
ü “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” –Hebrews 8:10, NIV (quoting Jeremiah 31)
ü “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” –Revelation 21:3, NIV
We see here that, from the time God speaks to Abraham, until the time when Christ returns again, God has given His people one covenant promise, Himself, and has promised to redeem one people, His people, and thus there is ultimately only one covenant. This is why the New Testament can refer to Christians as the “children of Abraham” (Romans 9:8 and Galatians 3:7). We see clearly throughout biblical history that there is one people of God and one promise for the people of God. If we have faith in God and trust Him, He will be our God and we will be His people.
Ultimately, God accomplished His covenant promise on the cross, where Jesus died to make peace between (or “reconcile”) a sinful people to a holy God. Jesus’ death, life, and resurrection are the fulfillment or accomplishment of the covenant promises, as our sins are taken away and we are made God’s people forever. The Bible refers to this final accomplishment as the “new covenant.” This covenant, accomplished by Jesus at Calvary, will be finally consummated when He comes again.
Each of the older covenants had a fatal flaw: the sins of the people always kept them from seeing God’s promises come true for them. Whatever requirements God set for His people, they always broke them and God had to bring the punishment for breaking the covenant. Time after time, God started again with His people, and time after time they broke His covenant and received the punishment instead of the blessing.